CLERGY CORNER: How did the Mona Lisa become the most famous painting?

Posted on 05 October 2017 by LeslieM

Why is the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world? Her enigmatic smile? The mystery surrounding her identity? The fact she was painted by Renaissance pin-up boy Leonardo da Vinci? Sure, all of these things helped boost the popularity of the 16th century masterpiece. But what really catapulted the small, unassuming portrait to international stardom was a daring burglary over 100 years ago.

When Italian handyman Vincenzo Peruggia, who worked as a handy man for the museum, stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre museum in Paris, in August 1911, he never could have guessed her absence would be the very thing that made her the most recognizable painting on the planet.

Suddenly, images of the artwork were splashed across international newspapers, as the two-year police hunt hit dead-end after dead-end.

It wasn’t until December, 1913, two years after the theft, that Peruggia was finally caught and the Mona Lisa recovered, becoming the best known painting.

It is fascinating to note that when the museum reopened, after being closed for a week following the larceny, throngs of people came to stare at the spot where the Mona Lisa had been. In fact, during those two years, more people came to see the vacant spot, than came to see the Mona Lisa before it was stolen all the years before!

Today, she is the jewel in the Louvre’s crown, helping attract around 10 million visitors to the Paris museum annually.

Had Peruggia instead slipped another artwork under his cloak that fateful day, it could have been a very different story.

If a different one of Leonardo’s works had been stolen, then that would have been the most famous work in the world — not the Mona Lisa,” said Noah Charney, professor of art history and author of The Thefts of the Mona Lisa.“There was nothing that really distinguished it per se, other than it was a very good work by a very famous artist — that’s until it was stolen,” he added. “The theft is what really skyrocketed its appeal and made it a household name.”

So, in a very funny way, the best thing that could ever happen for the Mona Lisa was that it was stolen! “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Without knowing it, the thief of this painting, trying to hurt the Louvre and restore dignity back to Italy, did her the greatest favor and transformed Mona Lisa into the legend it is.

Friend, you have just grasped the essence and the beauty of Yom Kippur. Each of our souls is a beautiful piece of art — even more beautiful than the Mona Lisa. Each of our lives, carved in the image of the Divine, is unique, dignified and extraordinary.

But we often allow our “art” to get stolen. We allow our souls, our goodness, our holiness, our purity, our inner power to be compromised, to go under cover and become absent from our lives. We search and we search and it is so hard to reclaim!

Yet, if we persist, as we rediscover our inner piece of art, its value becomes infinitely more precious — even more than before the theft! It is precisely due to our challenges, failures, breakdowns, mistakes and frustrations that when our goodness, our inner power, our Neshamah- Soul is recovered through repentance, it is so much more powerful, bright, and brilliant!  

Rabbi Tzvi Dechter is the director of Chabad of North Broward Beaches, located in the Venetian Isle Shopping Center at 2025 E. Sample Rd. in Lighthouse Point. For all upcoming events, please visit

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